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Keeping reporting alive in Oakland County

Jul 25, 2016

There are thousands of journalists in Philadelphia today, covering the opening of the Democratic National Convention. I don’t want to give anything away, but the Democrats are going to end up nominating Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.

Remember, you heard it here first. But there are fewer print reporters than there used to be, and they will return to newsrooms that have a small fraction of the staffs they once did. Increasingly, so-called dailies don’t deliver every day, or cover nearly as many stories.

Crystal Proxmire won’t be in Philadelphia this week, but she will be reporting, working seven days. At age 37, she is the editor, publisher and owner of an online paper called Oakland County 115, which covers Oakland County, Michigan’s second largest and easily richest county.

By the way, she is also the reporting staff and the designer.

She doesn’t have a fancy office. She works in restaurants, coffee shops and her own apartment in Ferndale, an older suburb on the rim of Detroit. But she isn’t doing a cute little newsletter or publishing political rants.

For seven years, she’s been doing hard-hitting journalism that has begun to get noticed. Recently, she won two awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for online investigative journalism. One was for exposing a scandal involving the Ferndale Housing Commission, work that helped send the director to jail.

Another revealed how the superintendent of Ferndale Public Schools used staff time and resources to set up a charter school business. Crystal – everyone calls her Crystal – is indeed somewhat of a celebrity in Ferndale, where her paper started; it was originally called the Ferndale 115 before she decided to take it county-wide. She is not getting rich from her work.

But she is – barely – paying her bills. Until a few months ago, she did everything by shoe leather and bus, before finally managing to buy a 2003 Nissan to get around.

Her newspaper is getting around even faster. She’s paid for an attractive design and is paying for audience research. She knows she’s now getting 50,000 unique readers every month.

While the paper can be read free by anyone, increasingly, some of these readers are voluntarily paying fifteen dollars a month. Proxmire’s goal is to raise enough to free her from having to do anything except expand the paper’s coverage and reach.

Though she occasionally pays a few stringers now, her goal is to eventually have a staff and someone reporting on every Oakland County community by 2025.

She thinks this may be a model for Michigan journalism in the future. Interestingly, she lived in West Michigan for a while, where she went to college at Grand Valley and tried out a prototype in Muskegon, where working-class people often got paid on the first and fifteenth of every month. Know why she got into journalism?

When she was a child, she was kidnapped for six months and had to be rescued by the FBI – and the local paper got the story wrong.

Later, when her beloved father killed himself at the start of the Great Recession, another local paper wouldn’t even cover the story. She vowed to do better by her readers.

And she’s out there doing it. If that doesn’t deserve respect, I don’t know what does.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.